This edited article about the Match Girls’ Strike first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 568 published on 2 December 1972.
Each evening, a few minutes after the whistle had blown, they could be seen streaming out of the Bryant and May factory off the Bow Road, a female army of pale ghosts dressed in drab and tattered clothing and wearing down at heel shoes. Stamped with the indelible mark of poverty, their eyes red-rimmed and heavy with permanent despair, they shuffled off nightly to their respective hovels in the slum wasteland of the East End. If no one gave them any more than a passing glance as they went by, it was because such sights were all too common in the streets of London.
The members of this particular pitiful army were known as the Match Girls, who were even more worse off than most. Working in the Bryant and May Match Factory, meant working long hours in primitive conditions, with no proper washrooms and toilets, More to the point it meant handling dangerous chemicals which turned many of them into physical wrecks. For this they were paid anything from 4/- (20p) to 13/- (65p) a week, from which fines were deducted for such trivial offences as answering back the bullying charge hands who had the power to fire any girl on the spot who seemed a potential trouble maker.
It was the year of 1888, and thanks mainly to the Trades Unions, recent legislation had put a stop to some of the worst abuses carried out in the factories. But the little that had been done had been confined to the skilled workers. The illiterate, unskilled workers remained as they had always been, underpaid, and exploited, and with seemingly no opportunity of having their wrongs redressed.
But for the Match Girls, at least, help was at hand in the formidable shape of one Mrs Annie Besant, a woman of forty, who had already made herself unpopular in many circles for her fight for women’s rights, which were practically non-existent at the time.
Among other things, Annie Besant was a member of the Fabian Society, a small group of people who had named their society after the Roman, Quintus Fabius Maximus, known as the Delayer, because he had harrassed Hannibal’s army for three years without once entering into a major encounter on the battlefield. The Fabians, who were all Socialists, hoped to use similar tactics to bring about a number of social and economic reforms. Using the slogan “Evolution not Revolution,” they hoped to break down the prejudices of their Establishment with reasoned argument. But reason, alas, does not always prevail, and already it was beginning to dawn on the Fabians that militancy was sometimes necessary. Mrs Annie Besant was perhaps rather different to the other members of the society inasmuch as that she had always been a militant. Aggressive, determined and totally devoted to the cause of women’s emancipation, she was the ideal person to fight for the cause of the Match Girls. Her efforts on their behalf were to have far wider ramifications than she could have ever realised.
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